Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Clay Pigeon (1949)

The year 1949 was pivotal for RKO Radio Pictures. Just two years earlier, their balance sheet had showed a healthy, $5.1 million profit. But in 1948, that number had tumbled to $500,000, and the studio executives were desperately trying to find a way to reverse their financial misfortune. They weren't placing much confidence in Robert Mitchum, their number one star, because he was still dealing with some serious image problems. In the Fall of 1948, Mitchum was arrested and convicted for marijuana possession and spent nearly two months incarcerated, serving most of his term on a prison farm. Life magazine was nice enough to show up and snap some pictures of him mopping the floors in his prison uniform.

The studio was also dealing with some serious changes at the executive level. In March of 1948, Howard Hughes took over RKO and promptly fired most of the employees. He also shelved several “serious” pictures that were either set to shoot or already in production. He thought it was time to take the studio in a new direction. Starting in 1949, RKO would place a much higher priority on cranking out low-budget B films.

The Clay Pigeon was one of the first noirs that RKO released while Hughes was steering the ship, and it can be viewed as a template for many of the noirs that RKO released over the next several years. If you're watching a noir from the late forties or early fifties that runs approximately one hour, features little-known actors in the lead roles, moves the action along at a nice clip and ties things up neatly by the end, then you're more than likely watching an RKO film. And the chances are also good that it was directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer, who had worked for five years at RKO exclusively as a shorts director, got his big break in 1948 when, shortly after he completed a directing job on So This is New York (1948), the studio gave him the chance to direct Laurence Tierney in Bodyguard (1948). He impressed the brass enough that they gave him two B noir directing gigs in 1949 - The Clay Pigeon and the highly enjoyable Follow Me Quietly.

The Clay Pigeon fits neatly into a very distinct category: amnesia noir. At its most basic level, amnesia noir takes the typical elements of a noir and throws an amnesiac protagonist (usually a WWII vet) into the mix. The Clay Pigeon wasn't the first noir to attempt this type of story: Somewhere in the Night (1946) and High Wall (1947) both preceded it, and The Crooked Way (1949) was released in the same year as The Clay Pigeon. Because the amnesia element can be difficult to implement in a convincing way, these films vary in their levels of success. Fortunately, The Clay Pigeon is one of the better entries in the amnesia noir canon.

The films opens in a veteran's hospital with a shot of two outstretched hands reaching for the face of a sleeping Jim Fletcher (Bill Williams). Once they feel his face, they go straight for his neck. When a nurse comes into Fletcher's room and interrupts Danny, the blind man who is choking Fletcher, he tells the nurse that he was feeling Fletcher's face because he wanted to know what a traitor looks like. While the nurse is willing to stop Danny, she can't stop giving Fletcher dirty looks. It isn't long before Fletcher, who is quite confused by the chilly treatment he's receiving, overhears a conversation between the nurse and the doctor, in which the doctor tells the nurse all about Fletcher's imminent court martial for treason.

Fletcher isn't sure what's going on, but he knows he has to escape from the hospital in order to find out. Fortunately for him, Fletcher's amnesia isn't complete - he can still remember who he is, who his friends were during the War, and where he should go to get help. But there's a still a mysterious bump on the back of his head, and he has no clue why he's being branded a traitor. All of his short-term memories are gone.

Fletcher decides that his best chance for help is his old pal Mark Gregory, so he heads to his place. His wife Martha (Barbara Hale, best known for acting alongside noir stalwart Raymond Burr in Perry Mason as Mason's secretary Della Street) answers the door and tells him that Mark should be home soon. While Fletcher waits in the living room, Martha makes a beeline for the kitchen and calls the police. Her husband's dead and Mark is the main suspect in his death. As the film eventually reveals, Jim, Mark and another man named Ted Niles (Richard Quine) were known during the War as the Three Musketeers because of their close friendship. Even a stint in a Japanese prison camp couldn't break them up. But word's going around that Jim narced on his buddies for stealing food - and got Mark killed in the process - in exchange for preferential treatment.

It isn't long before Jim forces Martha to help him track down Ted in Los Angeles so that he can clear his name. Martha doesn't believe him at first, but once a couple of heavies track them down on their drive to L.A. and try to kill them, Martha has a change of heart. They team up and work together to get Jim into the clear while simultaneously dodging the thugs that keep trying to bump Jim off.

One of the film's strong points is the undeniable chemistry between its two leads, Bill Williams and Barbara Hale. That Williams and Hale possess such a great on-screen rapport shouldn't come as a surprise, considering they had been married for three years by the time they made The Clay Pigeon together. They work as a kind of second-tier Bogie and Bacall, bantering back and forth and showing obvious care for each other's characters - a care rooted in their real-life love for each other. They remained married until Williams' death in 1992 - no small accomplishment in Hollywood, a town where, as comedian Rita Rudner put it, “a marriage is a success if it outlasts milk.” Hale gives the strongest performance in the film, and Williams runs a close second; the rest of the performances are serviceable B-level fare.

While it's certainly not his greatest work, Richard Fleischer shows flashes of potential that pay off in his later RKO noirs, such as the well-regarded Armored Car Robbery (1950) and the genuine classic The Narrow Margin (1952). The Clay Pigeon features some excellent nighttime cinematography, and the car chase scene shows Fleischer's flair for creative camerawork. In addition, the climax, which takes place on a train, prefigures the type of action Fleischer would employ with great success in The Narrow Margin.

The film also contains a powerful scene that demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the Japanese people's relationship with America - a surprising feat, given the film was released a mere four years after the conclusion of World War II. Once he arrives in L.A., Jim runs into the Japanese prison guard - a man they called the Weasel - who tortured him, Mark and Ted during the war. The Weasel and some of his thugs chase Jim through the streets and into a building, where Jim holes up in the first apartment with an unlocked door. It turns out that the apartment belongs to a Japanese-American woman who trusts that Jim is telling the truth when he tells her his life is in danger. The woman hides Jim and gets rid of the Weasel when he comes looking for him, and not long after, Jim spots a picture of her husband next to a certificate from the U.S. Government. It states that John Mimoto of the 442nd Infantry Division received The Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism.” Considering that it wasn't until 2010 that the White House officially recognized the achievements of the 442nd by awarding its members with the Congressional Gold Medal, it's remarkable that a film just a few years removed from the end of combat operations in the Pacific Theater would remind viewers that it shouldn't view the Weasel as representative of all Japanese people, and that many Japanese Americans fought and died for America during World War II. (For the sake of space, I won't go into the details of the 442nd Division's accomplishments, but I encourage you to research the subject on your own. You'll be amazed by what you read.)

The Clay Pigeon moves at a brisk pace, and while the film could have spent more time fleshing out some plot elements - we're subjected to an only marginally successful rush of exposition at the tail end of the film that attempts to sew up all the loose plot threads - the film still features an enjoyable story, solid performances, a neat third act twist and a satisfying conclusion. It's no masterpiece, but it's still a very enjoyable noir, especially for those of us who like to spend time with the B-level players of the RKO crowd.

Written by Nighthawk


  1. I've been on a little film noir amnesia craze recently and so after about a dozen films can say that the opening setup is really well done. The disgust shown to our lead by everyone is palpable and yet despite having amnesia he insists he must be innocent knowing deep down that it just isn't in him to be other wise. Yep, in all the films the amnesiac claims innocence although some do get quite a surprise.

    The film certainly has the nicest pairing of leads. As noted Williams and Hale were married and that chemistry does come across making the instant attraction of the characters far more believable then in many other films; noir or not.

    And I agree 100% with the comment about the scene with the Japanese-American woman. It begins suspenseful but ends up heartfelt.

    Take my advice watch this and any of the amnesia themed film noirs. You won't be disappointed. Now there was something else I wanted to say but I can't seem to remember it Doctor. Just the initials RB. And a dark corridor. And a woman lying there. I think she was dead...


  2. Very nice, thanks for the information.


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